A new walk-in navigation center that aims to connect unhoused people with social services will open at the site of the former Bean’s Cafe in late February.
The 3rd Avenue Resource & Navigation Center will be Alaska’s first permanent navigation center, a model tested in cities like Houston and Boston. The idea is to cluster social service providers in a single location, to make it easier for homeless people to access the help being offered.
“It’s the first of its kind and will meet a long-standing need for our community — a single place to go for help,” said Robin Dempsey, the executive director of Catholic Social Services.
The roughly 7,000-square-foot former Bean’s Cafe property at 1101 E. Third Ave. has been remodeled into offices, conference rooms, sleek private shower spaces and an airy, carpeted main “engagement place” where agencies and nonprofits can set up booths.
The project was funded by the Rasmuson Foundation and Weidner Apartment Homes, among other community organizations.
Weidner Apartment Homes founder Dean Weidner and Rasmuson Foundation chair Ed Rasmuson, who died in 2022, “became intellectually inspired” by a visit to a Houston, Texas, navigation center that provided quick access to health and safety services so homeless people could “begin a path to permanent stability,” said Weidner Apartment Homes vice president of public relations and government affairs Gregory Cerbana. The experience “fueled these businessmen and friends to invest” in creating something similar in Anchorage.
The center will serve as a “welcoming front door to guide our unhoused neighbors toward permanent housing,” Alexandra McKay, the Rasmuson Foundation’s vice president of strategy and impact, said in a statement.
The center is not designed to be a shelter or to serve meals, as Bean’s Cafe did at the site for decades, said Dempsey. There are no beds on site. And there is no commercial kitchen.
“The intention of this program is really to come and engage in either a resource or a service,” she said.
The idea is that a visitor might be able to walk through the door, safely stow their belongings, take a shower in a private bathroom, charge a phone and then sit down with a representative from a housing organization or job readiness program, said David Rittenberg, the director of adult homeless services for Catholic Social Services.
“One of the difficult things for people experiencing homelessness is that services are scattered all over the city,” said Dempsey. “This will be a place where people can access services all under one roof.”
Representatives from more than 20 organizations, including NeighborWorks Alaska, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and Nine Star Education & Employment Services have committed to having a presence at the center, according to Dempsey. Others are being recruited. People who need to go somewhere offsite — like the DMV — will be able to get a ride with a shuttle service. And across the parking lot is the Brother Francis Shelter’s medical clinic for the homeless, run by Southcentral Foundation.
One neighborhood group, the Third Avenue Radicals, is cautiously optimistic about the navigation center’s impact on the area.
The area has been much quieter since Brother Francis downsized during the pandemic, focusing on medically fragile and older residents, said Larry Michael, who owns property nearby and is a member of the group.
“At times when they were operating Brother Francis Shelter over capacity … it was untenable,” he said.
He’s waiting to see what happens when the navigation center opens and hopes for an invitation to tour the property. But the idea is sound. Michael said he’s in favor of a navigation center, as long as the impact to the neighborhood is central to the plan for how to operate.